The disciples gather around Jesus in the upper room. Before the meal begins, Jesus surprises and disturbs his followers by laying aside his garments, kneeling down, and washing their feet. Peter is shocked. In spite of his objections, Peter still submits to Jesus. All the disciples yield to the washing, blessing, cleansing act of Jesus.
Then he gets up, restores his clothes, looks at them and says, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You address me as ‘Teacher’ and ‘Master,’ and rightly so. That is what I am. So if I, the Master and Teacher, washed your feet, you must now wash each other’s feet. I’ve laid down a pattern for you. What I’ve done, you do. I’m only pointing out the obvious. A servant is not ranked above his master; an employee doesn’t give orders to the employer. If you understand what I’m telling you, act like it—and live a blessed life” (John 13: 12-17, The Message).
Let’s pause this story for a moment while I tell another story. A love story. Not a typical love story. At least, not the typical love story we’ve grown up hearing. It’s a story about a people living outside of love, outside the community of the faithful, outside the city. A people living by the dump, Gehenna. A people used to breathing the toxic fumes of society’s waste. It’s a people who have completely forgotten that they are beloved.
God comes to these tax collectors, prostitutes, demoniacs, and he eats with them. He drinks with them. He loves them. In the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God comes to His people to love and heal and embrace them. But they are so far in the dark that their initial response is not to turn toward Him but away from Him. He comes into the lives of the dark people, the forsaken people, the abandoned people, the lost people, and loves them fully, completely.
His love is unpredictable and everyone misunderstands. Jesus keeps loving, confronting, and immersing them in the surprising shape of His love. He is loving this mixed community into family. He pursues His people like a groom running toward His bride. Eventually, they behold the complete form of His love, and much to their surprise it looks like suffering and death.
People tell stories about the pain of lost love, forsaken love, unrequited love, but the most painful love story is the complete unveiling of true love. It is the deepest sorrow and the deepest joy. In the mystery of the Love of Jesus, death and life are intertwined and reversed. Sorrow becomes singing. And by the Spirit of Resurrection, death gives way to Life Unconquerable. This is the love story that gives birth to all true love stories.
We return to the twelve, sitting around Jesus, yielding to His service. Before His death, before His crucifixion, He gathers the twelve together. And he kneels before them. If not for the revelation of this action in John’s Gospel, the horror of this act seems almost unspeakable. Consider for a moment the implications of such an act.
An immoral woman kneels before Jesus and washes His feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair, kisses them with her lips, and anoints them with her perform. Jesus acknowledges her act of adoration and blesses her, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” He speaks as the true king. He speaks as the Son of God. He speaks as the Creator and Redeemer of the World. “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”
The posture of kneeling is the posture of submission before a ruler, and adoration before a god. Kneeling, bowing is a significant act of humility and worship. The second command warns against bowing down before false images of any kind.
Jesus kneels before the disciples.
What could this mean? How could the Creator of the World kneel before His created? How can we even begin conceive of the humiliation? We may miss the deep humiliation of the cross if we cannot see the unspeakable humiliation of Jesus kneeling to wash His disciples feet. He assumes the posture of the supplicant.
At first, the disciples are distraught and confused with Peter speaking as usual on behalf of the rest, “No Lord!” But Jesus says, “Yes and Amen.” There is no choice. Peter must submit. The Lord of Creation kneels before Peter and washes His feet.
Jesus does not violate the second commandment because these are not false images, they are true images. Created in His image, they’ve been disfigured by sin, but they are still imaging the Lord. He gathers, cleans, restores, heals the images of God. He begins in love, “For God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son.” And now He ends in love, “Having loved his dear companions, he continued to love them right to the end.”
He loves them completely. This kneeling is but a foretaste of the deeper humiliation to come that will also express His love, His Father’s love. Jesus reveals the love of the Father in His every word, His every action. He also reveals the pattern, the shape, the form of love in His complete person. Love is Word, Body, Act. His whole person patterns, images love.
As He restores these broken images, He tells them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You address me as ‘Teacher’ and ‘Master,’ and rightly so. That is what I am. So if I, the Master and Teacher, washed your feet, you must now wash each other’s feet. I’ve laid down a pattern for you. What I’ve done, you do. I’m only pointing out the obvious. A servant is not ranked above his master; an employee doesn’t give orders to the employer. If you understand what I’m telling you, act like it—and live a blessed life.”
He also says, “Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.”
Jesus enfleshes the shape of love, in Word, in Deed. In serving, in humbling Himself, in honoring His people. In life, in death, and in life eternal. Just as he gathered those twelve unto Himself, He is still gathering, still comforting, still healing, still cleansing, still loving. He invites us into His action.
From the vantage of kneeling, we see the other person in a whole new light. The light of Jesus cleansing, glorifying, beautifying love. In Him, the world is made new. In Him, the broken is made whole. In Him the abandoned is welcomed. In Him, the mournful finds joy. In Him, the image is restored.
So we serve and wash and even kneel in Him by the power of His Spirit. We are becoming lovers His love. And His love is sending out into all the world to love, and embrace and reconcile all things to Him.
* – All Scripture taken from The Message. Copyright (c) 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.